A ghost from the past

Alessandro Ponzetto | February 10th, 2022

In the last special we focused on Myanmar, which back in World War 2 was one of the most important and obscure fronts. There is however something even more obscure which has been lasting to this very day, and may continue to do so.

While everybody knows that World War 2 ended on September 3, 1945, with Japan’s surrender to the US, it is not entirely the case, a part of the epilogue has not formally been closed yet. On August 9, 1945 (when the B-29 Superfortress named Bockscar was flying with Fat Man, to eventually drop it on Nagasaki), the Soviet Union went to war against the Japanese Empire (violating the Neutrality Pact signed on April 13, 1941).

The objective was to take back the lands lost by the Russian Empire in 1905, which comprised Manchuria (now part of China) and the Southern half of Sakhalin, the large island North West of Hokkaido. There was also another objective, which had been ceded by the Russian Empire back in 1875 in exchange of full control over Sakhalin with the Treaty of Saint Petersburg: the Kuril Islands.

This is the crux of the controversy which is keeping this very obscure chapter of World War Two from being closed. Specifically, it is the fate of the Southernmost four islands (Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu).

Even after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and unconditionally surrendered, Soviet forces continued its offensive against Japan and occupied all of the Four Northern Islands from 28 August 1945 to 5 September 1945. By 1949, the Soviet unilaterally incorporated the territories and expelled the Japanese residents (approximately 17,000 people).

From June 1955 to October 1956, negotiations were held to conclude a peace treaty between the two sides. As there was no prospect for agreement regarding the islands, instead of a formal peace they signed the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration on 19 October 1956. The key part is Article 9:

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan, negotiations for the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.

In this connexion, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of the Japanese State, agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, the actual transfer of these islands to Japan to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan.

While the Declaration signaled the end of hostilities, it was originally designed to be a mere stopgap measure. Yet it endures, as Moscow and Tokyo have been unable to sign a Peace Treaty. This is not for a lack of trying, especially in the years that succeeded the fall of the Soviet Union.

There have been several steps taken since then, with the first being the Tokyo Declaration (article 2) back in 1993. Yet, the situation has remained unresolved to this day and actual peace is still beyond the horizon.

Compared to when all this began, the geopolitical situation has shifted quite dramatically. Not only has the Soviet Union collapsed since then, which did not free the Russian Federation from the 1956 Joint Declaration (as expressly declared in the aforementioned article of the Tokyo Declaration), but China is very much different from what it was then.

By 1956, the People’s Republic of China was still a backward country and on a collision course with the Soviet Union (as the Secret Speech was held in February of that year). Now, the PRC is challenging the US for primacy, just like the Soviet Union was in the Cold War (albeit by different means).

There is also a very interesting dynamic at play: on the one hand the Russians talked about peace on more than one occasion, but on the other hand they have had military exercises with China (with one circumnavigating Japan’s main islands, as seen in Asia Pacific Geopolitics – November 26).

The closure of the most forgotten chapter of World War Two has the potential to bring a dramatic shift in the region, if and when the two parties manage to settle. The most likely outcome, which could still benefit the two parties, was laid down in Asia Pacific Geopolitics – February 7, which is  the ratification of the status quo.

The irony is the parallel with what came before the 1941 Neutrality Pact: that Treaty was the ratification of the post-Khalkhin Gol (another very obscure chapter of WW2, also cited in Asia Pacific Geopolitics – November 26) status quo, and the subsequent scrapping of Hokushin-ron (the Imperial Japanese Army plan to expand Northwards).

The question is whether this elusive peace will finally be signed, and put to rest a Joint Declaration originally meant to be temporary.